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Hot-Air Heaven

Soar through the skies in a serene, unforgettable flight.

Ever dream of flying in the air without a care in the world, feeling the wind on your face and watching your worries fade away as you are raised in the sky?

Being in a hot-air balloon will give you that experience. It's certainly always been on my list of things to try.

The hot-air balloon actually far predates other forms of air travel.

In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, French paper manufacturers, constructed the first large-scale hot-air balloon.

Its initial living cargo wasn't people, though, but rather a menagerie of a sheep, a duck and a rooster, all of whom rode up over 1,000 feet in the air for about 10 minutes.

Only a few months later, French physician Pilatre De Rozier was part of a team making the first manned attempt to fly a hot-air balloon. They flew from the center of Paris for about 20 minutes, reaching an altitude of a few thousand feet.

Jean Pierre Blanchard and his American co-pilot John Jefferies made history by being the first to fly across the English Channel, two years later.

Up and Away

Over the past few centuries, the basic design of a hot-air balloon hasn't changed much. There are three main parts: a basket or gondola, which holds the passengers; the envelope, or the balloon itself, made either of nylon or polyester; and the burner, now usually propane-fueled, which heats the air used to propel the balloon upward. And don't worry about air escaping out of the hole at the bottom of the envelope -- as we all know, hot air rises.

How high can you go? "Every flight is different. Most balloons go from the tops of the trees to 3,000 feet in the air," says Lucas Hess, a pilot with the

U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team. He has been flying for about six years. It runs in the family; his grandfather also was a pilot.

Even though you can expect quite a view, you won't actually travel more than several miles from the departure point while on a ride with the U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team.

Pilots can control the altitude, either by turning up the burner (to rise) or opening a parachute valve at the top of the envelope (to descend), but otherwise, balloons are subject to the force of any winds. Since wind currents blow at different directions at different altitudes, though, pilots can use their vertical control to help direct the ride.

I know I'm a bit afraid of heights, so I ask Hess if the ride is bumpy. "It's very similar to standing on the ground, except you're floating. It is not turbulent or jarring," says Hess.

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The serene flight itself lasts about an hour, and depending on who you're riding with, you can even help with inflating the envelope of the balloon, if you want. Be prepared to be social, though, as you'll be sharing a basket with four to 16 people. And dress comfortably, as it can be warm in the basket and you will be standing the entire time.

Flights start around $180 per person with the U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team. This also includes champagne, snacks and transport back to the launch site. Riders must be at least six years old, but not because of a safety risk. "The main reason is that kids are not tall enough to see over the side of the balloon," Hess explains.

The biggest concern is the weather. Balloons require very stable conditions, which is why flights take place around sunrise or sunset, which is when the air is most calm.

If conditions are inclement, companies have different policies to cover rescheduling or refunds -- be sure to check on these before you book your flight.

For a more romantic experience, try a private flight for two from

Enchanted Balloon Rides ($800). In addition to the hour-long flight, you'll receive a champagne toast, flight certificate and pictures of you riding the balloon.

This could also be a memorable way to propose to your loved one. The company offers two rides seven days a week, and flights in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Bubble Up

After many balloon flights, it's a tradition to pop open some champagne. It's not just a way to celebrate -- there is actually a reason behind this. The tradition dates back to the 1780s, when it was a goodwill gesture to the farmers who allowed balloon pilots to land in their fields. The champagne also served to ease any troubles if the balloon landing happened to disrupt the farm animals or work.

To find out where you can fly worldwide, see the listings at, or check out the

Balloon Federation of America for upcoming festivals and even information about becoming a balloon pilot yourself.

As the weather warms up, take a peaceful hot-air balloon ride to float through the sky. It's certainly an experience you'll never forget.

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